With new head coach, veteran roster, Yough baseball hitting on all cylinders

Thursday, April 6, 2023 | 5:44 PM

Dan Palm said he was surprised but supportive when Craig Spisak resigned last year as Yough’s baseball coach to take the same position at Norwin.

An assistant to Spisak since 2016, Palm saw the forest through the trees, and an opportunity with it.

He decided to raise his game.

Palm took over as the lead man and asked his players to raise theirs, too.

“It didn’t take long for me decide to stay at Yough and apply for the job,” he said, “because of these kids. They have been great in the transition because really, there haven’t been any major changes.”

Palm used to coach third base and worked the defense while also having a hand in big-picture decisions.

His role is different but the same, he said, as Yough looks to remain a winner.

The Cougars (5-2, 2-0 Section 4-3A) look like a playoff contender early on as they strive to win back-to-back section titles for the first time.

Yough went 3-1 during a trip to Savannah, Ga., a trip Palm believed brought the team closer and defined roles.

“The most impressive part of our team so far has been the selflessness, camaraderie and attitude,” Palm said. “Our trip to Savannah really helped with these three things and helped the guys to really bond.”

Yough has a senior-laden team, with 10 playing key roles. That instantly boosts expectations because of the experience and leadership.

Clearly, senior catcher Jack Sampson could not wait for opening day. He was 11 for 17 to begin the year (.647) and had five doubles, a triple and 11 RBIs.

Sampson is a Washington & Jefferson commit.

“The past games we’ve played, our team has been making productive at-bats — moving guys around on the bases, hitting the ball hard and having guys do their job in clutch situations,” Sampson said. “It all started early in the season in our high school gym. Our team loves to hit, and we took that part of the game very seriously, and it really showed in season how much hard work we put in.”

Senior Bobby Etze was hitting .556, and junior center fielder Zander Aird, the point guard of the basketball team and a talented soccer player, had a .458 average with nine runs.

“He doesn’t carry himself like a typical underclassmen,” Palm said of Aird.

Palm moved senior cleanup hitter Gavin Roebuck from third to shortstop after the feeling-out trip.

“He is one of the most passionate yet calm and level-headed kids I’ve ever coached,” Palm said. “He was the leader of the football team and led the squad in TDs and he had a great wrestling season.”

James Shoman, a senior who was an all-section selection last year, was 2-0 with a 2.21 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.

Senior Aidan Werner did not allow a hit in a three-inning win in Georgia.

Freshman Nate Bell recorded two saves.

Palm said Bell has been the team’s biggest surprise.

Palm is on the Yough football staff (football head coach Ben Hoffer is a baseball assistant), so he knew Bell from that sport.

“I knew he was pretty athletic and has a great mind,” Palm said. “But we weren’t expecting him to push his way to varsity so fast. He was added to the roster to go south just days before we left because he was doing so well in practice. And then he performed down there and solidified himself as a varsity player. Plus, the older kids respect and love him.”

The team’s captains — Sampson, Roebuck, Blake Ulander and Etze — keep the Cougars grounded, Palm said.

“They have helped me immensely in keeping the team in check and having the team’s pulse always in a good place,” the coach said.

Palm said the Cougars personify the “attitude and effort” axiom implemented by Spisak, who was coach for six seasons.

“We’ve talked about being a team that’s tough to play against,” Palm said. “That means we always go hard, we run everything out, we aren’t afraid to attempt to make spectacular plays on defense, and we have tough at-bats. We aren’t there yet, but the boys are trying to get there.”

Palm also was a head baseball coach at Albert Gallatin (2003-04) and Belle Vernon (2006-13). He guided Belle Vernon to the WPIAL finals in 2012.

“I learned from those stops, and as an assistant at Yough, that your coaching staff is everything, and I have an incredible staff that is helping things go well,” he said. “And our staff is involved with other sports and just absolutely loves Yough.”

Palm’s staff is as follows: Jim Schaffer, another football assistant who Palm refers to as his right-hand man; Larry Hixson, who is Yough’s head wrestling coach and a football assistant; Casey Teagarden, a hitting coach who played college baseball at Westmoreland County Community College and Cal (Pa.); and Dom Koch, a recent Yough graduate who currently plays for WCCC.

Hoffer works with the junior varsity players.

Bill Beckner Jr. is a TribLive reporter covering local sports in Westmoreland County. He can be reached at bbeckner@triblive.com.


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